Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Fine Arts Building Chicago in the news

We made the Chicago papers!

I was interviewed in my Fine Arts Building studio several weeks ago for the Chicago Tribune newspaper. The article finally made it to print yesterday. The interviewer asked questions for twenty minutes and many photos were taken while I was working, but my mention is brief and the only photo from my studio was my courtyard view. Ah well, can't win 'em all! So, here's a short intro to my real-life artistic community. More photos can be seen at the Tribune website. Click the hyperlink below.

Artists thrive in friendly confines

City's Fine Arts Building offers a historic sanctuary for all manner of creative trades

By Emma Graves Fitzsimmons

Tribune staff reporter

7:06 AM CDT, July 30, 2007

The rapid notes of a Bach sinfonia spill into a hall of Chicago's legendary home of the arts, an enchanting building still haunted by a century of artists whose creativity has been inspired in its maze of hallways.

Behind one door on the fourth floor, a bassist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is seated at the same piano his grandfather played when he worked as a composer in the historic building almost 70 years ago.

"I'd known about the building for years," said Stephen Lester, who began renting a studio there last year. "When you walk through the halls, you can hear all kinds of things, people teaching and practicing. That's part of the pleasure of being in a building like this."

A floor below him, the stomping of flamenco dancers on hardwood floors bursts through the doors of a Russian ballet company. The neighbors of a voice instructor on the ninth floor listen to her student belt a classic opera piece in preparation for a big audition.

It would be easy to walk right past the Fine Arts Building along Grant Park and miss the beautiful sounds of a new generation of performers working within the building's cubby holes.

Designed by Solon Beman, the building at 410 S. Michigan Ave. was built as a Studebaker Carriage Co. factory in 1885 and was converted to a home for Chicago's artists in 1898. It housed the studios of sculptor Lorado Taft, and author L. Frank Baum, who wrote The Wizard of Oz book series. At the turn of the century, architect Frank Lloyd Wright had a gallery on the top floor of the building, which also was home to Poetry magazine and a popular social club Hull House founder Jane Addams attended to discuss books and current events.

Today, the building's halls appear untouched by time, with the same murals, stained-glass windows and dim lighting. One of the elevators is hand-operated by Thomas Durkin, who has worked there for more than 50 years.

The cavernous building now features a wide range of tenants, including Oscar-nominated filmmaker David McGowan, and Al Gates, a photographer who moonlights as a tango instructor.

Many studios enjoy sweeping views of Lake Michigan. The splendid backdrop, the bustle of the city below and the summer breeze off the lakefront all add to the building's charm. Most of all, there is a sense that the new generation is keeping the sanctuary's rich history alive with art and music.

"This is a love affair, this building," said owner Robert Berger, who carries a harmonica in his pocket for an impromptu melody. "This is a giant wine cellar. It's a performance cellar."

The 72-year-old real estate investor bought the urban arts colony for $10.4 million two years ago, promising to keep its physical beauty in tact, along with its storied mission. Berger, who also owns the art-focused Flat Iron Building in Wicker Park, says he has big plans for the future of the 10-story historic building, which currently houses 164 tenants.

The first major addition has been a high-tech recording studio that airs video of performances on the building's Web site. The staff say the site, www.fineartsbuilding.com, has received as many as 1,000 visitors daily in the last year and hopes to attract even more with archived clips of violin recitals and poetry readings. Recent performing guests featured on the Web site have included a local actor reading Jack Kerouac's works and a drummer expressing his thoughts on existentialism.

His next big project will be the restoration of the building's two dilapidated theaters. Both were converted to movie theaters but are now empty, but Berger said he hopes to bring them back in the next five years as a venue for big shows and maybe even a boxing match or two.

In the meantime, he plans to keep rent "modest" at the building, which costs about $2.5 million a year to run. A flier on one small studio advertises monthly rent at just $390.

Inside Curtiss Hall on the top floor, nine dancers with nooses around their necks gasp for air and writhe on the floor in a performance called "Nine Witches Cold" about the Salem Witch Trials. The backdrop for their rehearsal is a bright panorama of the lake.

The dance company is lucky to meet there three days a week, said Van Collins, founder and artistic director of Rasa Dance Chicago. Beyond the building's beauty, he said, it is stimulating to be around so many other artists under one roof.

"It's the most inspiring thing on the planet," Collins said. "It's completely tweaking my creativity. Some photography on the sixth floor gave me an idea for a dance. I walked past it, and all these ideas came to me."

Alice McMahon White's fifth floor studio has a view that overlooks a quiet courtyard lined with pillars and planted flowers. The Beverly artist's specialty is Irish landscapes, but lately, she has started a series of pastel drawings based on photographs of her children.

Her studio is near a yoga studio and a piano teacher's office. "When they're practicing, it sounds great," she said.

Russian dancer Elizabeth Boitsov is one of the veteran tenants. Her ballet school has occupied a slice of the third floor for 27 years.

One summer afternoon, two dancers learning the flamenco are clapping and stomping their heels while waving ruffled blue skirts. The women, who are classically trained ballerinas, are trying to loosen up to the fast-paced, rhythmic music.

Their instructor Carolina Xavier, a Brazilian ballerina, is teaching them to thrust their shoulders forward as part of the choreography.

"Your body is going to be like a board going forward," Xavier said. "It is an improvisation. Inside the structure of the dance, you can create something new. You can express yourself creatively."

Cello music drifts out of the Machold Rare Violins store on the ninth floor. Colin Clark is playing cello after cello in search of the perfect one.

The 16-year-old from Elgin is hoping to buy one that will last him through college and beyond. He plays a concerto by composer Franz Joseph Haydn on several cellos until he finds one that feels just right.

"It has a powerful sound," Clark said. "It's very loud and punchy. I had to find a cello that will work to my strengths."

Sales clerk Elizabeth Stein says she helps musicians find the "love of their life" from an international collection of string instruments ranging in price from $12,000 to $6 million.

The store also holds performances and benefits in its large studio, which is filled with antique furniture and rugs. Currently, the store is borrowing a beautiful old piano from another shop on the floor for an event. Stein pauses and smiles: "We have great neighbors."



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